The purpose of fear

By Nicolle Vale

Fear is ubiquitous and it not only impacts individuals but entire nations, usually to detrimental effect. While the topic of facing one’s fears may seem a bit overdone, it is an issue that people continue to struggle with, and an important one to discuss in this day and age.

It is believed that our sense of fear stems from our primitive form. It all began with our animalistic flight or fight response. It helps us survive by pointing out threats and telling us whether to run away from or confront them.

This instinctive behaviour is still around today. Many people are scared of snakes, spiders, things that go bump in the night and other things that pose an immediate danger.

If we didn’t have our instinctive sense of fear we’d all be running around like the Jackass boys—uninhibited and reckless—and we probably wouldn’t last too long.

So it appears that in these situations, fear is useful. It keeps us safe and alive. But what about in situations that are not so black-and-white?

Fear has become somewhat of an epidemic. In a world where strong relationships are a rarity, races and religions are pitted against each other, organisations and politicians spout lies, and the environment is being destroyed, it can be difficult not to feel fearful or hopeless. Maybe some of you are afraid of where your life will lead after you graduate: a fear of the unknown. It doesn’t help that fear-mongering has become a common tool used by powerful societal institutions. The bottom line is that most people these days have more than just a simple rational nervousness around dangerous animals. They have deep, ingrained, complex fears about themselves, about other people, and about the future.

We must ask: is this fear actually useful? Do our instincts help or hinder our ability to face these issues properly? Do these issues warrant such gripping fear or should we have evolved beyond this behaviour?

In his 1933 inaugural address, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt said the famous quote ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’.

He described it as a ‘nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance’.

However, former life coach and counsellor, Belinda Northcote, believes fear still has something to offer us today.

She says that most fears are useful in the way that they point to something in your life that is problematic or needs attention.

‘Your fears tell you “hey, there might be something wrong in this area; investigate!”’

Ms Northcote said that the trick is not to try to overcome your fear, to remove the source of the fear or to ignore it, but instead to look at your own emotions in a different light.

‘If you are able to see past the “scary” aspect of fear and strip it down to its core, you can find the true source of your discomfort. From there you can figure out whether the worst-case scenario really is as bad as you imagined and can take proper actions to change things or prepare yourself,’ she said.

‘Of course, mental tools such as positive thinking and keeping calm and rational are helpful here and it may be better to seek professional help if your fears are really overwhelming you or affecting your daily life.’

‘I think the fear of failure was the most common issue I came across in my work and some people didn’t even realise that this was what drove their self-sabotaging actions.’

So maybe FDR was wrong; the point is not to be afraid of fear itself but instead, to be wary of the irrational, detrimental aspects of fear and to use the other parts for self-improvement.

Acknowledge your fears and turn them into something useful. Then maybe you can exist in the same room as a spider or achieve something great after you graduate.

The way you let fear affect you is a choice and so, it is up to you whether you let it hinder or help you.

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